Nearly 30 years after Britain foiled an attempt to kidnap Second Republic Minister of Transport, Alhaji Umaru Dikko, an eyewitness has opened up on how he prevented the influential politician, accused of stealing $1 billion of public funds, from being crated to Nigeria.
British Customs officer, Charles David Morrow, recently told the BBC World Service Witness programme what transpired on that day in 1984 at the Stansted Airport where a Nigeria Airways plane was waiting to freight Dikko.
The former National Party of Nigeria (NPN) chieftain had been drugged and stuffed into a crate for transportation home, preparatory to facing trial for corruption.
Although the then Federal Military Government, headed by Major-General Muhammadu Buhari, had denied involvement in the botched kidnap bid, there were telltale signs of the Buhari junta’s complicity in the kidnap attempt.
Dikko was plucked off the street as he stepped out of his home in an upscale London neighbourhood by a team of Nigerians and Israelis who attempted to kidnap and repatriate him.
The former minister, regarded as one of the most influential members of the cabinet of President Shehu Shagari of the NPN, had fled to Britain in the wake of the military coup, led by Buhari that ousted the administration on New Year’s Eve in 1983.
Labelled “Nigeria’s most wanted man”, a plot was hatched to get both him and the $1 billion he was accused of embezzling, despite his denial, back.
The plan was to kidnap Dikko, drug him, stick him into a specially made crate and put him on a plane back to Nigeria – alive.
An alleged former MOSSAD agent from Israel, Alexander Barak, was recruited to lead the kidnap team. It included a Nigerian intelligence officer, Major Mohammed Yusufu, and Israeli nationals Felix Abitbol and Dr. Lev-Arie Shapiro, who were to inject Dikko with an anaesthetic.
On a summer’s day in 1984, Dikko walked out of his front door in Bayswater, London, and within seconds, he was grabbed by two men and bundled into the back of a transit van.
“I remember the very violent way in which I was grabbed and hurled into a van, with a huge fellow sitting on my head – and the way in which they immediately put on me handcuffs and chains on my legs,” he told the BBC a year later.
The kidnappers switched vehicles in a car park by London Zoo and headed towards Stansted Airport where a Nigeria Airways plane was waiting. They injected Dikko and laid him, unconscious, in a crate.
The Israeli anaesthetist climbed into the crate as well, carrying medical equipment to make sure Dikko did not die en route to Nigeria. Barak and Abitbol got into a second crate. Both boxes were then sealed.
At the cargo terminal of Stansted Airport, a Nigerian diplomat was anxiously waiting for the crates to arrive. Also on duty that day was Morrow.
“The day had gone fairly normally until about 3 pm. Then we had the handling agents come through and say that there was a cargo due to go on a Nigeria Airways 707, but the people delivering it didn’t want it manifested,” Morrow said.
“I went downstairs to see who they were and what was happening. I met a guy who turned out to be a Nigerian diplomat called Mr. Edet. He showed me his passport and said it was diplomatic cargo. Being ignorant of such matters, I asked him what it was, and he told me it was just documents and things.”
No one on duty at Stansted had dealt with a diplomatic baggage before and Morrow went to check the procedure.
Dikko’s Secretary Alerted Police
Just then, a colleague returned from the passenger terminal with some startling news. There was an All Ports Bulletin from Scotland Yard saying that a Nigerian had been kidnapped and it was suspected he would be smuggled out of the country.
The police had been alerted by Dikko’s secretary who had witnessed his abduction from a window in the house.
Hearing the news, Morrow realised he had a problem on his hands.
“I just put two and two together. The classic customs approach is not to look for the goods, you look for the space,” he said.
“So I am looking out of the window and I can see the space which is these two crates, clearly big enough to get a man inside. We’ve got a Nigeria Airways 707, which we don’t normally see. They don’t want the crates manifested, so there would be no record of them having gone through. And there was very little other cargo going on board the aircraft.
“If you want to hide a tree, you hide it in the forest. You don’t stick it out in the middle of Essex,” he added
But any cargo designated as a diplomatic bag is protected by the Vienna Convention from being opened by customs officers. So, Morrow got on the phone to the British Foreign Office.
“To qualify as a ‘diplomatic bag’ they clearly had to be marked with the words ‘Diplomatic Bag’ and they had to be accompanied by an accredited courier with the appropriate documentation.
“It was fair to say they had a Nigerian diplomat – I’d seen his passport – but they didn’t have the right paperwork and they weren’t marked ‘Diplomatic Bag’,” he said.
The decision was taken that the crates could be opened – but it would be done by the book. That required the presence of a Nigerian diplomat, but as Morrow pointed out, one was already on hand. By now, the crates were up on special trolleys ready to be loaded on to the plane.
“Peter, the cargo manager, hit the lid on the bottom and lifted it. And as he lifted it, the Nigerian diplomat, who was standing next to me, took off like a startled rabbit across the tarmac,” Morrow said.
“You have to remember we are on an airfield which is square miles of nothing. He ran about five yards (4.5m), realised no one was chasing him and then stopped. Peter looked into the crate and said: ‘There are bodies inside!’”
He parked a forklift truck so its tines lay across the top of the crate so it couldn’t be opened. Morrow dialled the emergency number 999.
“My name’s Morrow, from Customs at Stansted. We’ve got some bodies in a crate. Do you think you can send someone over,” he recalled saying.
“They said: ‘Alive or Dead?’
“I said: ‘That’s a very good point. I don’t know.’
“They said: ‘We’ll send an ambulance as well.’”
After half an hour, police started to arrive, and they opened the second crate. Inside they found an unconscious Dikko, and a very much awake Israeli anaesthetist. Dikko was lying on his back in the corner of the crate.
“He had no shirt on, he had a heart monitor on him, and he had a tube in his throat to keep his airway open. No shoes and socks and handcuffs around his ankles. The Israeli anaesthetist was in there, clearly to keep him alive,” recalled Morrow.
The kidnappers in the other crate were unrepentant. They said Dikko was the biggest crook in the world.
The Nigerian intelligence officer and the three Israelis all received prison sentences in the UK.
Diplomatic relations between the UK and Nigeria broke down and were only fully restored two years later.
Dikko was to later return to Nigeria years later and the allegation against him has never been revisited.
Morrow, on the other hand, was commended for actions that day by the head of UK Customs, who described the incident as a “very tricky situation.